BIG DISCOVERIES HAVE SMALL ORIGINS
Author: M.S. Santhanam
The Economic Survey carries an entire chapter on transforming science and technology in India and calls for doubling research and development expenditure from its current level of about Rs. 1 lakh crore, amounting to 0.8% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Even if instantly doubled, it would still lag behind China, Israel, Japan and the U.S., each spending more than 2% of their GDP on research.
Diminishing funds for exploratory small-scale science research is another area of concern. Seminal innovations often result from the efforts of scientists working alone or in small groups with a tight budget rather than in well-funded mega projects. For example, today, the global market for Raman spectrometers is about $1.2 billion. In 1928, C.V. Raman spent about Rs. 200 on his laboratory-built spectrometer that heralded the era of Raman spectroscopy as an analytical tool and also brought to India its first science Nobel prize. Time and again, small science projects have demonstrated the potential to emerge as harbingers of technological changes and therefore funding of smaller explanatory research must be encouraged.
In India, as elsewhere, a significant fraction of the science budget goes to mission-oriented projects in the areas of defence, space, nuclear and environmental sciences which are very important. However, equally important is the research ecosystem that provides human resources and feeds the innovation pipelines connected to these missions. Throttling smaller-scale research is akin to cutting off the innovation pipelines. Enhanced competitive research grants for the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, and universities will help address the needs of a larger pool of scientific talent outside national labs and bring in returns by way of publications, patents and innovations that can meet immediate needs.
A glimmer of hope
Remarkably, the Economic Survey too has flagged this issue and recommends that India “gradually move to have a greater share of an investigator-driven model for funding science research”. It is imperative to incentivise the small ideas as some of them might ultimately scale up to join the big league. One route to help the cause of science is by provisioning more funds for small-scale research projects as well. The Economic Survey offers that glimmer of hope.
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